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Bear-dancing in Romania – another way of welcoming the New Year

Bear-dancing is an event that takes place between Christmas and the New Year.  Locals wear real bearskins and parade around town to the delight of many of those living in the eastern Moldova region of Romania.  It was an event that captured the imagination of the photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi.

“The bear dances were always one of my favourite memories.  It’s a joyous event, although the dancers don’t look that way in the pictures … They’re trying to look fierce,” the photographer who left Romania at the age of 8 with her parents, first to Canada, then to the United States, says.

The tradition was born with the Roma who would come into towns with real bears.  The younger bears, for a fee paid to the Roma, would cure the backaches of the townspeople by walking up and down their backs.  As for the older bears, they would be made to “dance” by being placed on hot metal plates, an action that made them hop.

As for “how they went from live bears walking on people’s backs to people dressed as bears,” Ms Alhindawi says “no one can figure it out.”

Her ambition however is to restore a tradition that is dying out either through migration – “they’re all away in Italy or Spain or other places” – but also through poverty and discrimination.

The collapse of communism in Romania led to the collapse of the economy.  The Roma, a people that have been discriminated against throughout history, sold their bearskins in order to survive.  A subsequent ban on bear hunting has made figures for new bearskins go up to $2,200, an amount of money many Roma cannot afford.

Zeyneb hopes to revive the tradition with her photographs and get tourists coming to the region.  Perhaps that might help the Roma community who faces discrimination because of poverty and illiteracy, a consequence of their isolation–a measure of self-protection due to a legacy of centuries of persecution.

Ms Alhindawi who will soon be doing an exposition of her photos speak of the great fun she had in shooting the photos.

“I’m so happy to have done this.  There were so many times I wanted to put my camera down, put on a bearskin and join them.  It’s really magical, like going into a fairy tale.”

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